Spring is the season of babies, in the woods, on the beaches, in the ponds and meadows. Baby birds can be great fun to watch. Here are four little stories about them.
–After watching the shenanigans between male and female mallards on my home pond, followed by lazy males loafing around with each other, I finally got to see what I was waiting for: seven tiny ducklings scooting around the pond. They seemed to be totally unsupervised; no mama was in evidence. So the little fellows skittered all over, jumping up to catch a bug on an overhanging alder leaf, streaking across the water for no obvious purpose, nibbling small things along the shore. After some minutes, a female appeared from downstream. But she ignored the ducklings and hobnobbed with another female; they foraged together on the shoreline vegetation in apparent amity. Two males sleepily lurked in the brush at the upper end of the pond, ignoring everybody else. Eventually, one of the females rounded up the fuzzy little ones, and they all disappeared.
–A few days before the little duckies appeared, I watched a female junco feeding on some spilled seed, while her fledgling danced all around her, begging—beak open, wings aflutter. She turned her back, it scuttled around in front again; she turned away, it sidled around to face her. This litte dance repeated itself several times. The kid was perfectly capable of feeding itself, and did so occasionally, but it wanted mama to provide. Mama did her best to ignore the importunate youngster, but occasionally gave in and poked a seed into the little beggar.
–A friend found a crow nest, tucked under a good-sized log. A nest on the ground isn’t the usual thing for crows around here; mostly they seem to nest in densely branched spruce trees. Sometimes several nests are fairly close together, in adjacent trees, forming a loose colony.
Some days after the discovery, we went back to look for the nest. Meanwhile the vegetation had grown exuberantly, so the sheltering log was invisible. So we hunkered down behind some bushes and kept watch for the parental crows. Eventually they came in, bringing food for the chicks, and after several feeding trips, we had the nest location pretty well pin-pointed.
After the adult crows had left the area to find more food, we walked up the to spot, parted the surrounding vegetation, and peered under the log. There were two big, well-feathered chicks with bright blue eyes, staring warily up as us. I bent down low, and discovered that there was a third chick, less well developed than its siblings, cowering in the ‘back room’ farther under the log. The third chick may have hatched a bit later than the other two and, because it was therefore smaller, it was likely to be last in line when the parents brought food. If food is scarce, it may the first to die. Because the usual clutch size is four or five eggs, it is possible that other runts may have already died. (Or maybe I just can’t count higher than three!).
–Near the Visitor Center, I accidentally discovered a yellow-rumped warbler nest, wedged into the fork of a tall willow tree. I think they had very young chicks at that time, and during the following days, they grew rapidly. Soon four tiny beaks could be seen, reaching up above the rim of the nest when the parents came to feed them. A day or two later, fuzzy, downy heads were visible. A few days more, and the nest was starting to collapse on one side. Two hefty, feathered chicks held tight to the tipped bowl, while two more huddled just outside and behind the upper rim. A couple of days more, and they were gone.
Yellow-rumped warblers are widespread, but their plumage and songs vary geographically. At present, this variation is represented in about four subspecies, which are known to interbreed at times. The adult birds at this nest were interesting: The female seemed to be a typical ‘myrtle’ type, with a white throat. At first glance, the male appeared to be another subspecies, called ‘Audubon’s’, with a yellow throat. But one of Juneau’s top birders suggested, after seeing photographs of the head markings, that the male was probably an intermediate form, perhaps a result of previous hybridization between myrtle and Audubon’s. Apparently this pair was busy rearing more intermediate forms of this species.